Last week I was lucky enough to spend three and a half days eating my way around some of New York’s most delicious Italian restaurants. I tagged along with my friend Annie who was doing a research trip on Roman food for her upcoming restaurant Locanda here in San Francisco. We were breaking down the intricacies of dishes, checking out the table settings, looking at server uniforms, and doing it all in the name of “research”…can you think of a better business trip? Nope, me neither.
We came to a few conclusions on this trip. The first: “if the service is bad, neither great food or a longstanding reputation can make up for it” and the second: “more often than not, casual, home style dining satisfies infinitely more than white tablecloth fine dining”. Oh, and good Pasta all’Amatriciana needs lots of guanciale.
Our absolute hands-down highlight meal was at a tiny spot in Nolita called Torrisi Italian Specialties. The sandwich shop by day and 18 seat restaurant by night is truly a stunner. The chef/owners spent their earlier years cooking for the likes of Daniel Bouloud and Mario Batali before opening Torrisi. Their pedigrees shine through clearly, not in the fussiness of the food but in the meticulous attention to detail and the clean flavors of each and every bite.
Getting into Torrisi is a bit of an event. The restaurant opens at 6 and only takes reservations on site, beginning at 5:45, for that night. So you line up, in our case about 5pm, make friends with folks standing outside with you, and at 5:45 the host comes out and goes down the line, asking you when you want to eat. You can hang out and eat right at 6 or, as we did, give her a later time and grab some drinks in the hood while you wait (a word of warning-don’t eat anything before dinner, you’ll be happy you showed up hungry).
We were a table of five and the host sat us right on time. The dark wood tables are surrounded by shelves of Italian-American grocery products-Progresso bread crumbs, olive oil, and dried pastas. The menu is set with no substitutions so be prepared to take what you get. Each meal starts off with mixed antipasti, a selection of four appetizers brought to the table family style on small plates. We had:
–Still-warm made-to-order mozzarella drizzled with olive oil, sprinkled with sea salt, and served with amazing little garlic toasts.
–Cucumbers New Yorkese: loved the name and LOVED the cukes! These were cucumbers in five stages of pickling, sliced together and tossed in a light mustard vinaigrette. Each bite had different flavors and textures and I could have taken home a gigantic jar of these babies…amazing
–Seafood salad: crisp green lettuce leaves tossed with a very fresh and clean tasting mixture of fish and shellfish. It was lovely but, to me, got a bit lost in all the other big flavors on the table.
–Pork liver mousse with pretzel crostini and pickled red onions: This disk of perfectly smooth mousse was French Laundry worthy-spread it on the toasted pretzel bread, top it with picked onions…mmmm
After the antipasti, there was a pasta course. We had German Style Gnocchi served with shredded brussels sprouts, a vinegar brown butter sauce, and crispy rye bread crumbs. The gnocchi were kind of cross between spaetzle and gnocchi, light as air and very acidic with that sauce. I loved the rye bread crumbs and will add them to my own brussels sprouts next time I make them.
For entrees there are generally two choices and that night we were offered Devil’s Chicken (a breast and thigh cooked until absolutely moist and bathed in a guajillo chile spiked sauce-served with homemade yogurt) or a crispy skinned trout fillet served with sunchoke hash. They were also offering an additional “entree for two”, a prime cut whole short rib, sliced and served on the bone (think Fred Flintstone my friends)-a $15 supplement to the regular menu. We had all of the above and the highlight was absolutely that meat-the texture was succulent and the flavor simple and out of this world. I should also mention we were grabbing every last bit of chicken we could off the plates on the table.
Before dessert they brought out a small cup of house made lemon Italian ice then came the plate of “pastries”. Modern interpretations on your Italian grandma’s classes, the plate had five petite bites for each of us:
-a pinky sized cheesecake cup-graham cracker crust, cream cheese topping, and a dried cherry on top
-rainbow cookies: the red/green/white marzipan bars coated in chocolate at either end
-tiny profiteroles stuffed with walnut cream
-star-piped butter cookies dotted with chocolate and sea salt
-miniature cannoli made with pizzelles
I debated writing about this dinner because it was one of those nights where you finish a meal and know there is no possible way to describe how good it really was. We called it “epic” and I stand by it. After meals at Babbo, Lupa, Marea, and Mialino (plus two visits to Eataly), we experienced a few dining highs and many dining lows. The meal at Torrisi was spot-on from beginning to end. The service and food both shined and at $50 a head, it was worth every penny. My only tiny criticism might be of the wine list…most bottles were from California and the price points seemed very high given the price of the food.
Next time you find yourself in New York, spend your day enjoying every minute but by 5pm be sure to make your way to Mulberry street to get your name on the list for dinner at Torrisi.